Dark and damp and dank at quarter past five on a May Day morning in Ampthill Great Park, writes Mal Tattersall.
Dawn is yet to break. Madrugada, the Spanish call it. Rain is in the air and the grass is covered with dew.
According to tradition, the maid who rises early on the First of May “and washes in dew from the hawthorn tree, will ever after handsome be”.
Alas, despite the early hour it is probably far too late in the day for me as I shiver under my hat and scarf.
But nevertheless there is some magic in the air.
All is silent and still. Until from somewhere in the distance comes the faint sound of bells jingling on the costumes of two dozen morris dancers.
Suddenly the silence is shattered as a drum starts to bang, and the strains of a penny whistle drift over on the breeze.
Then finally through the trees, behind a flaming torch, can be seen a rag-taggle procession trudging through the wet grass to St Katherine’s Cross.
May Day… the ancient Wican festival of Beltane, marking the beginning of summer, when once upon a time people lit bonfires whose smoke, flames and ash were thought to have special protective powers.
And so in Ampthill Great Park, the local morris dancers turn out in force every year to greet the rising of the sun in the east.
The town’s Redbornstoke side, all in virginal white, kick off the proceedings leaping up and down and waving their white hankies (hopefully clean) in the air while one of their chums plays his squeezebox with gusto.
Then the slightly sinister-looking Hemlock dancers, from Bedford, in their black and purple outfits with tall feathers stuck in their top hats, take over dancing to a fiddle and a drum.
Unfortunately thick clouds and a constant drizzle mean the 50 or so bleary-eyed citizens (with nearly as many dogs) who turn out to watch the early-morning spectacle never actually get to see the sun rise.
And after an hour shivering in the dawn chill, as a faint whiff of frying bacon drift in on the breeze from the nearby Queen’s Head where landlord Richard Hammond is cooking his traditional May Day breakfast for the revellers, people begin to slowly drift away.
Beer and bacon butties at the pub beckon. They are too hard to resist.